Still tough going for women

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ST_moholi0 (30212794) inlsa Skilled: Former Telkom CEO Pinky Moholi at the companys results presentation earlier this year. Is South Africa ready for women leaders, asks the writer. Picture: Simphiwe Mbokazi

South Africa is a constitutional democracy where there is equality before the law for all. This is enshrined in our constitution. In chapter 3 it proclaims that “all citizens are entitled to the rights, privileges and benefits of citizenship”, while chapter 9 further asserts that “everyone is equal before the law”. Noble words those. But what is the reality?

The ruling party, acting in this spirit, has consistently vowed as a policy decision to apply an equal gender parity in its leadership and deployment policies.

While this was embraced by all democratically inclined people, bar some few misogynists and male chauvinists out there, women are still a minority in strategic positions, both in private and public institutions.

Just recently, South African ambassador to Italy Thenjiwe Mtintso decried in a newspaper article that in all its 100 years of existence, the ANC had only male presidents. The situation is worse in the corporate sector, where the absence of women in leadership positions is most glaring.

In the government, however, things appear to be gradually improving, with the number of woman leaders in both the government and parastatals reasonably high and soaring. The reason for this difference in philosophy and approach is easier to contemplate.

Governments depend on the votes of citizens to continue ruling.

Since the majority of citizens in South Africa who are ipso facto voting material are women, it makes good sense for the government to appease its female constituency, as they could wield enough power to determine the fate of any government. Mtintso also makes this point, though she still laments the strange and intriguing habit of most women voters to prefer male candidates over women.

In the corporate environment, where shareholders hold sway and insist on “pure merit” for appointments to any leadership positions, women are not always in the front line. The system there, incidentally, favours men, who hold the historical advantage of having perfected their leadership skills while women were still stuck in the kitchen.

The same argument can be advanced to explain why there are still few black corporate leaders compared with their white counterparts in this country.

The reality is that the dice are still heavily loaded against women succeeding in leadership positions, if what is happening currently in South African government and public institutions is anything to go by. Just in these past few weeks, we have witnessed the resignation of a chairwoman and her female CEO counterpart at SAA, the state carrier. Before the ink could dry, previous reports that knives were out for the Telkom chief executive rang true, culminating in the sudden resignation of CEO Pinky Moholi. She was only appointed CEO last year.

Thus, within a period of a month we have witnessed yet another departure of several woman leaders in parastatals.

There are reports of continuing turmoil at the SABC, yet another woman-led parastatal. The Department of Basic Education, also led by a woman, has been plunged into an ugly book scandal.

Press reports highlight worrying whispers in the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries about the fitness of its minister, who is a woman, to lead and hold office. Our media also ran headline stories about the shady goings-on in the Department of Communications, also led by a woman.

One should not, however, conclude that all government departments run by women are in a state of dysfunction.

There are few exceptions, such as International Relations, Home Affairs and others. This also does not necessarily exonerate state departments run by men.

Obviously, this phenomenon is not restricted to parastatals and government agencies. Just recently, South Africa woke up to learn about the hasty departure of Cynthia Caroll, CEO of Anglo.

Departments, parastatals or corporations run by women seem to attract more negative publicity than their male counterparts when they err.

One reads or hears little about parastatals, government departments or corporations led by men, which might give credence to the conspiracy theories.

Or it might be that South African women in leadership positions are messing up more than their male counterparts.

Is South Africa and even the broader world out there ready for women leaders in the private sector and the government?

This led me to think that maybe in the quest to become politically correct, our South African male-dominated authorities have been pushing women prematurely into positions they are not attuned to, all in the spirit of gender parity.

When democracy dawned and mindsets changed, one would have expected a gradual introduction of women into such leadership positions, but alas, political correctness took precedence over good sense. Number crunching gained prominence over skills and capability.

While I agree with the need to have women leaders within the government and the private sector, parachuting women into senior positions before they are ready is a recipe for disaster. It becomes worse when these women are left to fend for themselves with no adequate strategic support in place.

It is also done to achieve a self-fulfilling prophecy, as in most instances the women who fail are replaced by men. Again the same argument, I guess, can be made regarding the hiring and promotion of black men to senior positions without the requisite skills.

When they fail, they are in most instances replaced by white men.

I think South Africans should own up and face reality. It will take a while for our women to acquire the right capacity to manage adequately and lead multibillion- rand entities.

Similarly, it will take a long time for South African men to learn to respect women leaders to a degree where they will desist from sabotage.

Both these processes are evolutionary than rather revolutionary. That is why, even in today’s modern times, in those western societies flaunted as bastions of advanced forms of civilisation, you still have fewer woman MPs and even more fewer CEOs in the Fortune 500 firms.

In fact, we are doing better in this country. Out there it’s still a man’s world. It ought to change.


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